50 Lessons I’ve Learned from working at Start-ups

I have been obsessed with start-ups since I got introduced to the world of start-ups as a starry eyed first year college student. After having worked for close to 5 start-ups over the last few years (including one attempt to start-up of my own) I have learned quite a bit about what makes a start-up tick. Here are 50 lessons I’ve learned while working for RedBus, Kony Labs, Kore, CouponDunia & Craftsvilla:

  1. Always hire A-Players. A-Players hate working with B-Players and the worse thing you can do is hire a bunch of B-Players and expect them to work at the same level as of A-Players. A-Players attract more A-Players while B-Players attract B and C-Players. Have a high hiring bar. Nowadays the first thing every employee going through a company’s interview process does is look up the people working there.
  2. Always give honest and direct feedback by cutting out the bullshit. Radical candor is the secret to being a good boss and you should set up processes to facilitate receiving radical candor.
  3. Have monthly All-Hands. Make sure all critical decisions are communicated well. You don’t want your employees to hear about the latest acquisition or lay offs from the Media. If you think All-Hands are boring you can use Etsy’s playbook and make it fun.
  4. Understand what truly motivates your employees. For some people it might be just the salary but for most employees it is the quality of work and the chance to grow in their career. Make sure people are learning at their roles. Help create a career path for them. Give them fulfilling work to make sure they don’t get bored. Bored employees quit.
  5. Listen to your employees. Sometimes they just need a person who is willing to hear them out. If you are a manager and your subordinate comes up with a work issue the easiest thing to do would be to take a dismissive tone and just ignore it. But don’t. You might not be in a position to solve all their problems. But you can definitely give them a platform where they can share their feelings. Let them rant if needed. They will calm down after some time.
  6. Have regular One on One with your reports.
  7. Make goal setting an inclusive exercise. Most companies takes a top-down approach while setting organisation wide goals and sometimes employees are not involved in deciding their own quarterly goals. This is not how OKRs are implemented folks! Also don’t ever tie OKRs with performance appraisals. The whole point of OKRs is to objectives ambitious enough to push you beyond your limits.
  8. You can either ship a certain number of features well (have depth) or a bunch of them fast in their MVP state (have breadth). The goal should be to strike a healthy middle ground. Strive to ship a few well thought out (and tested) features regularly. As you grow beyond a point doing things right take precedence over doing things fast.
  9. Have a way to measure the impact of your releases. Have analytics in place from Day 1. Blindly shipping cosmetic UI changes will take you no where.
  10. Company Mission Statement and Vision are not empty words you make your employees memorise (or put them on their email signatures). Clearly defining both, and living by them every day is a key aspect of building a successful technology company.
  11. Every organisation has their core values and employees try to take all important decisions based on them. For Amazon customer is the king and they will do everything needed to make her happy (from overworking their employees to taking the customer’s side when it comes to Customers vs Sellers). Don’t merely hang your values on the wall to impress visitors. Make sure you follow them too
  12. Between a free breakfast and a stable internet your employees will always choose the later. Know your priorities.
  13. If you are a Manager always ask for a deadline for open items/tasks.
  14. Be more proactive in putting ideas across. It is easy to nod your head during meetings, just do what your manager says and then say ‘I always knew this was stupid’. It takes guts to confront your manager and voice your disagreement. Amazon always says disagree but once a decision is made commit to it. A healthy work environment ensures all stakeholders can voice their opinions and it is not always the HIPPO (highest paid person in the office) who has the final say.
  15. If you have a major marketing campaign coming up make sure you don’t deploy code one day prior to D-day. Similarly avoid making last minute additions before major releases. Every thing which goes to production should be properly tested.
  16. Set goals. Find problems. Find their root cause. Design solutions. Complete the tasks related to them. In that order. Most startups just keep looking for more tasks/features to complete and then complain when there is no movement of the performance needle.
  17. The easiest option for founders/senior managers is to surround themselves with friends/sycophants. Please don’t do this if you ever dream of running a successful start-up. Always hire people better than you and let them challenge your opinions. Your opinions are just that- Opinions and not Facts. Let the best approach (backed with data) win and not the HIPPO’s.
  18. Create a culture where people are not afraid of making mistakes. If anything breaks the priority should be on fixing it and not start a blame game. Going forward create a process to prevent similar mistakes from happening.
  19. Hire people with integrity. Don’t hire brilliant jerks. You will be spending a lot of time with your colleagues. Make sure you at least you respect each other.
  20. Have morning Stand-ups. The best time for a team to sync up is always in the morning when everyone is fresh and the day is just starting.
  21. Accept when you screw up (because you most definitely will sooner or later). Your colleagues will understand as long as you own up to your mistake and take full responsibility.
  22. It is very important for managers to have a strong opinion. But it is equally important to be prepared to change your opinion once proven wrong in the light of new information.
  23. Name your important projects. Instead of ‘The ongoing project to clean up catalog data and create a process flow for adding products for a particular catalog’ call it simply ‘Aristos’ or something.
  24. Have a demo day every week to allow your engineers to show off their latest projects and make sure everyone in your company knows what is happening.
  25. Images are better than words. Similarly a working prototype is better than a long mail explaining the same. If you have a working feature/ product have an early demo to get feedback from major stakeholders. This will help you get buy-in early and avoid churn later.
  26. Important decisions should have buy-in from all stakeholders. Changing code (on which other teams’ features are dependent on), breaking things in production and then saying ‘I already had sent a mail informing about that’ is not acceptable. Make sure everyone clearly knows what you are up to. Over communicate if needed.
  27. If you are interviewing a senior developer a junior developer should be involved in some part of the hiring process. Making a subordinate talk to the interviewee will ensure that someone who is unable to gain the respect of their future reports is not hired.
  28. Getting new users is much costlier than retaining old ones. Do keep listening/talking to them actively. If you have to spend on Customer Support do so.
  29. Company wide discussions should be held to discuss important issues. A Town hall can help prevent rumours from surfacing during bad times and keeping your troops motivated. Make sure your employees understand the rational behind every important decision. Radical transparency is the way to go.
  30. Spend time on boarding new employees. The first day is extremely crucial. Help them settle in. Fix a mentor. Also have a training program in place.
  31. Read exit interviews as well as GlassDoor reviews. They will tell you a lot about what is broken with your company as well as culture.
  32. Have courage to make big decisions and stand by them. If a decision goes wrong you will have to accept it and hold your hands up. No one will give you any credit when you make the right ones though. This is part of being a manager. Accept it.
  33. Say Thanks often. Sit with your team while firefighting. It is not OK to expect your team to pull all-nighters while you sleep comfortably at home.
  34. Don’t criticise in public. It will only make people defensive and hate you. Sort every issue during one on ones. Losing your cool is not cool.
  35. Having a mentor is really important. If you have a trusted senior person you can go to start-up life will be much easier. I have been lucky to have amazing mentors during my career from whom I have learned a lot. Find someone who will root for you.
  36. A key activity of a founder is to keep sharing the company vision with her employees. In the darkest times people will still stand by you if they trust your vision.
  37. One of the toughest things to do as a Manager is to say ‘No’ to new tasks/features. With so many things happening at startups it becomes almost impossible to prioritise and focus on a few goals. It becomes even more difficult to say No to requests from senior management. But if there is one quality which separates good managers from bad ones it is this — Ruthless Prioritisation. Learn how to say No and stand your ground.
  38. Most start-up cultures are defined by the founding team (especially the CEO). If your CEO is data obsessed it is more than likely that most of the team’s decisions will be data driven. If your CEO is a workaholic who works long hours you will find other employees doing the same. Culture is one of the most important factors that can make or break your startup. As a founder it is critical you are setting a strong culture.
  39. By default every critical information should be shared. Openness will breed a culture of trust. Radical transparency is easy when things are going well. The key is to maintain the same level of transparency during turmoil too.
  40. Long term goals are speculative at best. Use 70/20/10 rule where you spend 70% of your energy focusing on upcoming weeks, 20% on the next quarter and the remaining 10% further out.
  41. People working on same features should sit together. Instead of strict seating arrangements make sure people can move and work based on their requirements. Have war rooms for critical projects.
  42. Have a specific day of the week where you discuss your key KPIs. It is important to keep improving on your numbers and have a general idea about the health of your company.
  43. Avoid wasting time during meetings. All meetings should have a clear agenda and only the relevant stakeholders should be present. Take notes. Never leave a meeting without a follow up mail with action items and deadlines for them.
  44. Know your north star metric and make sure you obsessively chase it.
  45. Don’t let people suffer from shitty office politics. Beat bureaucracy. If you are setting up any new process ask who it is going to help. If you are not sure then you are better off without it.
  46. Once people lose confidence in their manager it is terribly hard to maintain a good working relationship. Also studies show that a lot of people leave their managers and not companies. Make feedback and praise a habit.
  47. Having regular releases is better than a single big bang release. A lot of things can go wrong during a major release as it involves a lot of moving parts. Better to break the complexity and go for smaller scheduled releases.
  48. Have all important communication written down. It prevents people from changing their statements later and also helps align everyone on the right direction.
  49. When a Start-up is in hyper scaling mode it becomes even harder to keep everyone on the same page and pointed in the right direction. The CEO’s job here is again to keep reminding everyone of the original vision and why things are the way they are. Over communication is better than people losing touch and looking for other opportunities. A strong culture from the beginning helps.
  50. Your own employees should be the most passionate advocates of your product. If you are running a consumer start-up and you can’t make your own employees use your product then something major is broken. Try to figure out the root cause. Be willing to go deep if required. This will help you achieve product-market fit faster.

If you liked reading this blog post you might also want to check out:

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P.S I tweet a lot of interesting articles/studies related to start-ups. Follow me here:@manas_saloi

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